Exercising for Heart Health
Should you be an Olympian to have a healthy heart?
With the 2008 Beijing Olympics underway, American audiences can’t help but be awed by the obvious fitness of the athletes. The high level of performance achieved by these young athletes is truly inspiring.
Should you follow their example in order to look good, feel good, and have a healthy heart?
The secret to a successful exercise program
High levels of achievement and fitness are, thankfully, not necessary to achieve high levels of heart health.
The amount of fitness and exercise required to impact significantly on heart health is actually quite modest. It won’t get you to the finish line in an Olympic event, but it can reduce likelihood of heart attack a good deal.
With exercise for health, I ask everyone to take a practical, long-term perspective and answer the following question:
“What sorts of physical activities can I perform and stick to for the next 30 years And, enjoy doing it?”
The key is not the form or intensity of effort. The essential ingredient is that you derive some form of enjoyment from the activity.
If you force yourself to pedal 5 miles a day on your stationary bicycle in your basement, but despise every moment of it, you’re unlikely to succeed over the long run.
But people who discover enjoyment and satisfaction in their exercise will stick to their program even when stressful distractions crop up in other parts of their lives.
For some people, solitary activities that provide quiet moments for contemplation might be desirable, such as walking a treadmill, riding a stationary bicycle, or using an elliptical machine. Others prefer the camaraderie and sense of shared experience that is only possible in groups: aerobic classes, group yoga instruction, “spinning” classes and other organized group activities might be best. Still others might most enjoy the close company of a partner on walks, tennis, golf (no drive cart!), etc.
Maybe you need to be mentally stimulated: You’re bored easily and struggle to exercise more than a few minutes. If you prefer visual stimulation, you might do better by watching the news on TV while pedalling your stationary bike. If you prefer auditory stimulation, listen to some of your favorite CD’s, the radio, or your MP3 while you walk a treadmill. You might vary your choice of exercise over the course of a week: Bike once a week, walk twice a week, swim once a week, play tennis once a week.
Some people (especially men) don’t like activity without purpose (other than exercise itself); they need to accomplish something. That’s great, too, but for fitness and health purposes, it does require an elevation of heart rate and to break a modest sweat to achieve the heart benefits. So raking leaves, clearing yard debris, or sanding wood would fill this requirement, but not painting, light gardening, or doing laundry.
The point is to succeed by enjoying yourself. Do things you like and you might even look forward to it.
What happened to “No pain, no gain?”
What constitutes a sufficient level of physical activity? Do you have to exercise to exhaustion like an Olympic athlete or is just breaking a light sweat enough?
You can decide for yourself whether an activity is sufficiently stimulating to the cardiovascular system if you raise and sustain your heart rate to 70% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate or greater.
This seems like an awfully complex rule, but it’s really simple to calculate. To get your 70% target the minimum heart rate you would like to achieve and sustain, start with the number 220 (maximum heart rate in humans under normal conditions) and subtract your age; multiply the result by 0.7 (70%). This will give you the approximate minimum heart rate required to yield the sorts of benefits listed earlier. (This applies to both men and women.) For example, if you’re 50 years old:
220 – 50 = 170
170 x 0.7 = 119 beats per minute
You therefore need to maintain your heart rate at 119 beats per minute or greater. A heart rate of 119 is easy to attain by a brisk walk, light to moderate-effort biking, walking on your treadmill with a modest incline (say, 3% grade), raking leaves, singles tennis, ballroom dancing, etc.
Measure your heart rate by feeling the pulse in your wrist (just below the base of your thumb). Count the number of heart beats in 15 seconds and multiply times 4, and this yields heart beats per minute. You can also measure heart rate by using one of the many heart rate monitors available today or that come built in with exercise machines. These devices are reasonably accurate (as long as the interface between hand and contact is moist). If you have cause to doubt a device’s accuracy, just compare the heart rate read-out to the value you obtain by taking your pulse. You can, of course, exceed this 70% level (provided your doctor agrees). If you were striving towards Olympic medals, you’d have to go much further. But to achieve substantial benefit for heart health, these simple goals can do the trick.
The “no pain, no gain” mantra does not apply to people who are looking for heart health. This is meant for people whose aim is to achieve high levels of fitness for competition, or other such purposes that have little to do with heart health. Much of the benefit from exercise comes by devoting sufficient time to your efforts. For people with otherwise sedentary lives, two hours a week of a 70% effort is the minimum, preferably divided up into three or four sessions. This amount provides 90% of the cholesterol/blood pressure/anti-inflammatory benefits achievable with exercise. Less than this and you might not obtain the improvements you desire. More than this, and there are modest additional increments of up to 10%
Be inspired by the superhuman performances of the Olympic athletes, but you don’t have to follow their lead. The grunting, straining, and extraordinary effort of an Olympian are simply not necessary for you to feel better, lose weight, or help correct your lipids/cholesterol patterns.
Want more on the Olympics? Check out HealthCentral's Olympic 2008 coverage